Forts Donelson and Henry’s Restless Dead

Federal forces under General Grant traversed the isthmus separating the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and took the Rebels of Fort Donelson by surprise.  A bloody battle ensued.

Federal forces under General Grant traversed the isthmus separating the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers and took the Rebels of Fort Donelson by surprise. A bloody battle ensued.

In both Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I chronicled several different hauntings related to the Battle of Shiloh. But before Shioh were Donelson and Henry.

Forts Donelson and Henry were the twin Confederate bastions which guarded the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers on the border between Kentucky and Tennessee. The Rebels had fortified the two rivers where they came close to one another–called Land Between the Rivers back then; now, thanks to the TVA, it is Land Between the Lakes. Here in the winter of 1862, a Union amphibious force came to break the Confederate defenses. Led by General Ulysses S. Grant, the Yankees first bombarded Fort Henry on the Tennessee River into submission and then, in a bold move, Grant took a small force overland and besieged Fort Donelson from landward, catching the Johnnies off-guard. The Rebels had all their big guns pointing down-river, in the direction from which they thought the Yankee fleet would come.

Fort Donelson falls to the Union army under Grant, opening the way for the Union occupation of the entire mid-South.

Fort Donelson falls to the Union army under Grant, opening the way for the Union occupation of the entire mid-South.

It was a bitter cold winter and both sides suffered terribly. The wounded lay thick in the no man’s land between the two armies and suffered as much from the cold as they did from their wounds. Many died a slow and agonizing death. The Rebel troops, for their part, were ill-prepared for a winter campaign and suffered even more than the Yankees from the cold. Ultimately, Grant bluffed the incompetent Rebel commanders into surrendering, thereby assuring his fame and opening the way for the Union to conquering the heartland of the Confederacy.

General Ulysses S. Grant smoked, drank and liked to play poker.  His skills at poker came in handy at Fort Donelson where he bluffed a superior force of Rebels into surrendering to his small army.

General Ulysses S. Grant smoked, drank and liked to play poker. His skills at poker came in handy at Fort Donelson where he bluffed a superior force of Rebels into surrendering to his small army.

Although the dead of both sides were quickly interred, their undead shades lingered–and they linger still at Land Between the Lakes. After my first book, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, which chronicled a few of Shiloh’s ghosts and haunts, and Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, where I covered more Shiloh ghosts and also a tale relating to General Grant, I had occasion to talk with several re-enactors who had camped at Fort Donelson at various times, trying to re-create conditions as close to January, 1862, as they could.

The re-enactors I spoke with told me it was not uncommon for one or another of their ranks to have uncanny encounters at Fort Donelson. One lady, a sutler, describes awakening in her tent in the dead of night to fight all her wares and her tent violently shaking and rattling. There was no wind or storm or any natural event that night to explain it. But apparently there was something supernatural that could.

Another re-enactor told of performing picket duty at night while his unit was there. Many re-enactors try to get into the spirit of the period, not just for visitors during the day, but at night as well. An onlooker might well mistake them for the real thing. This re-enactor was on duty late at night when he saw a light coming up the hill in the distance.

The dim glow grew larger and larger as it approached him and at first he could not make out what it was. Then it came close and passed him; in the eerie glow he could see the torso and head of a man–seemingly an officer, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and smoking an old-fashioned stogie; it was the phantom cigar that illumined the figure. It almost seemed as if the phantom officer were making the rounds, checking on the bivouac to see all the guards were on duty. But the cigar-smoking figure was no re-enactor; he had no lower body, just a materialized torso and be-hatted head. Was it the ghost of General Grant? Or was it the shade of some other tobacco-loving commander, North or South? Who knows?

To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill about another war, Fort Donelson was not the beginning of the end of the Rebellion; but it was the end of the beginning. And they’re those who say that many who met their end there abide on the grounds of the battle-field still.

For more Civil War ghost stories see my Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War; Rutledge Hill did the original editon which is still in print, although Barnes & Noble, Lone Pine and Sterling have come out with economy hardcovers in addition to the paperback editions. My first book, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, also chronicles the battlefield hauntings of Shiloh, Chickamauga and Franklin.

Re-enactors conduct an artillery barrage at night at Fort Donelson

Re-enactors conduct an artillery barrage at night at Fort Donelson

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About Christopher Coleman

I am an author, lecturer, and sometime instructor. My interests span a variety of subjects, including Southern tales of the supernatural, American history and folklore, military history in general, as well as archaeology, anthropology, plus various and sundry things that go bump in the night. I currently have six books in print: Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Dixie Spirits, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, a factual history of some more esoteric--and hitherto overlooked--aspects the sixteenth President. My book is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published in hardcover by the University of Tennessee Press and chronicling the wartime experiences of young Ambrose Bierce, noted American author. Bierce has been called many things by many people, but idealist, hero and patriot are terms that should be added to the list after reading this book. I am currently at work on several projects, some dealing with the American experience but also several fiction and non-fiction works looking into the Age of Arthur.
This entry was posted in Battle of Shiloh, Civil War ghosts, Civil War Leaders, Fort Donelson, Fort Henry, Forts Donelson and Henry, Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, The American Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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